Proposals to double the volume of e-commerce in Europe by 2015 – laid out in a communication published yesterday (11 January) – are set to cause a tussle over the liability of online traders.

The communication – launched by Commissioners Michel Barnier (Internal Market) Neelie Kroes (Digital Agenda) and John Dalli (Health and Consumer Policy) – contains the action plan aiming to boost e-commerce from its current levels of 3.4% of total retail sales (3% of the EU GDP) to 7%.

It outlines proposals to increase access to online sales for consumers, make online payments and delivery of goods easier, increase price transparency and consumer protection, protect against fraud and beef up high-speed networks.

The most controversial issue, however, relates to the liability of internet service providers for faulty or fraudulent content.

Liability of online trades under scrutiny

Currently such providers are protected from liability so long as they act to remove offending products or advertisements when they have knowledge of the problem.

The Commission intends to beef up protections, however, and will adopt an initiative on the so-called ‘notice and action’ procedures this year.

James Waterworth, president of the European Digital Media Association (EDiMA), an alliance of some of the largest internet and new media companies, welcomed the move to unlock the growth potential of the single market. But he told EurActiv it should only be done “while ensuring that the cornerstones of the current environment, for example the liability regime for online intermediaries, remain in place.”

However, Monique Goyens, director-general of BEUC consumer organisation, said the ‘notice and action’ procedure for illegal content must be very carefully framed.

“We have seen that efforts to criminalise consumers are a waste of time," she said. "Europeans have clearly shown that more legal choice, with the chance to confidently and safely pay, is where the future lies.”

A €310-billion business

Kroes said €6 trillion changes hands annually through global e-commerce, "but in Europe we are lagging behind. Of the  200 million Europeans who buy over the internet – faced with different national rules – fewer than one-quarter do so across national borders.”

Copenhagen Economics, an economics think tank, has released a new study saying that online intermediary activities in the EU contributed around €310 billion to European GDP based on 2009 data.

The think tank said the sum consisted of a direct GDP contribution of online intermediaries of €160 billion, and an indirect impact of €150 billion through ripple effects on other firms and sectors.

The report said that year-on-year growth in e-commerce has seen a steep upward trend.